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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: lesbian

The 1980s are often recalled as the conservative Reagan years. But they were also a tipping point in the superheroic battle for gay rights. LGBTQ characters in comics began the decade as villains and ended it with a revised Comics Code that championed their “orientation.”

Although England’s Wolfenden Commission recommended decriminalizing homosexuality in 1957, and the American Law Institute made a similar recommendation in 1962, the 1971 Comics Code update remained unchanged from its 1950s version. “Sexual abnormalities” were still “unacceptable” and “the protection of the children and family life” paramount—even after the American Psychiatric Association struck homosexuality from its mental disorder list in 1973. As a result, superhero comics avoided gay characters until the 1980s, and early depictions cast them as villains.

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Beginning in Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #43, Roger Stern scripted Roderick Kingsley as a thin, limp-wristed, ascot-wearing fashion designer who another characters calls a “flaming simp!” and who is later revealed to be the supervillain Hobgoblin (1980).

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Kingsley is not directly identified as gay, but the same year in the non-Code Hulk Magazine #23, Jim Shooter and Roger Stern scripted two men, one black and one white, attempting to rape Bruce Banner, who escapes a YMCA shower room by threatening to transform into the Hulk: “You hurt me and I’ll get big and green and tear your … head off!”

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Alan Moore and John Totleben recreate a similar scene eight years later in Miracleman #14 when three teens succeed in raping the pubescent Johnny Bates: “You love it. You littul poof. Say you love it.” He escapes by actually transforming into the monstrous Kid Miracleman, who then massacres thousands of Londoners before being forced to transform back, leading Miracleman to murder Johnny to prevent future massacres—all the results of a homosexual rape.

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Early depictions of transgender characters are comparatively positive. Because a character’s consciousness is often depicted as existing independently of the character’s body, superhero comics provide a range of opportunities for fantastical gender-switching. In 1975, writer Steve Gerber introduced Starhawk, a male superhero who exchanges bodies with his female lover, Aleta. Jim Shooter scripted Starhawk in The Avengers #168: “Aleta gestures in defiance as her persona submerges, giving way – as the persona of Starhawk assumes command, the corporeal form they share shimmers… changes.” Although both characters are heterosexual and cisgender, the visual depiction of a woman transforming into a male superhero alters the male-to-male norm established in Action Comics #1.

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Mike W. Barra and Brian Bolland’s 1982 Camelot 3000 introduced a more overtly transgender superhero, the legendary knight Sir Tristan reincarnated into a woman’s body. Tristan rejects a female sex identity until the maxi-series’ conclusion when he chooses to live as a woman with his reincarnated female lover Isolde.

Beginning in the 1987 Alpha Flight #45, Bill Mantlo scripted a more convoluted, multiple body-swapping plot that concluded with the spirit of a previously deceased male character, Walter Langkowski, inside a formerly deceased female body—except when Langkowski transforms into the male body of the Hulk-like Sasquatch for superheroic adventures. Like Sir Tristan, Langkowski, taking the first name “Wanda,” continued a previous romantic relationship with his female lover.

While challenging gender binaries, these early depictions of transgender and gay superheroes also maintain aspects of traditional masculinity and heterosexuality. The female Aleta transforming into the male Starhawk literalizes the emasculated or female-like nature of Clark Kent already implicit in the formula. With Tristan and Langkowski, a female body is controlled by a male consciousness, and the male consciousness is male by virtue of having existed previously in a male body. The physicality of the male body, even when not currently present, is primary. Tristan and Langkowski also treat transgender as a temporary plot conflict resolved by a male consciousness accepting a female sex identity through what visually appears to be a lesbian romance, normalizing same-sex female relationships as fantastical expressions of heterosexuality. None of the narratives present a female consciousness inhabiting a male body or male bodies in sexual relationships. Since only female homosexuality is visually portrayed and because early depictions of gay men are villainous, superhero masculinity remained heterosexual and homophobic.

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John Byrne challenged that norm in 1983 with Alpha Flight superhero Northstar. Because the Code barred openly gay characters, Byrne suggested the character’s sexuality indirectly, for example, introducing his friend Raymonde Belmonde whom Byrne draws in a nearly identical light blue suit and red ascot that Mike Zeck designed for Roderick Kingsley four years earlier. Byrne was either alluding to Zeck or both were drawing on the same cultural stereotype—arguably the blue suit worn by an emaciated David Bowie on the album cover of the 1974 David Live.

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Despite more direct portrayals of same-sex superhero relationships in non-Code-approved issues of The Defenders and Vigilante in 1984, Bill Mantlo continued the pattern of indirection when scripting Alpha Flight in 1985. When he began a 1987 story arc in which Northstar contracts AIDS, Marvel under the editorship of Jim Shooter altered the disease to a fantastical ailment, forcing the character into temporary retirement. Other writers followed a similar approach, including gay characters while avoiding identifying their sexualities overtly. Scripter Al Milgrom in the 1988 Marvel Fanfare #40 moved closer to confirming the relationship between mutants Mystique and Destiny originally intended and implied by Chris Claremont in 1981.

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Paul Levitz, during his 63-issue, 1984-89 run of DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes, also indirectly indicated that the 60s characters Lightning Lass and Shrinking Violet were lesbian lovers, a subplot continued by the next team of writers in 1989. Alan Moore’s 1986 Watchmen memoirist Hollis Mason alludes to two gay superheroes, Hooded Justice and the Silhouette, both of whom may have been murdered for their sexualities.

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DC’s Steve Englehart and Joe Stanton’s 1988-9 The New Guardians featured the flamboyantly effeminate Extrano, who wore a large golden earring and a purple cape but was never explicitly identified as gay. John Byrne also introduced police captain Maggie Sawyer to Superman in 1987, interrupting Superman mid-sentence before he could explicitly identify her as lesbian.

The increase in gay representation parallels gains of the gay rights movement of the 80s. Wisconsin, for example, became the first state to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in 1982, and 600,000 protesters marched in Washington in support of gay rights in 1987. “After decades existing in a subtextual closet of metaphors, tropes, and stereotypes,” writes Sean Guynes, “in 1988 openly gay characters exploded in the pages of superhero comics” (2016: 182). When the Comics Code Authority revised its guidelines in 1989, it reversed its quarter century of anti-gay mandates. The Code’s new “Characterizations” subsection required creators to “show sensitivity to national, ethnic, religious, sexual, political and socioeconomic orientations.” The revision also acknowledged that heroes “should reflect the prevailing social attitudes,” potentially allowing positive portrayals of openly gay superheroes.

As a result, LGBTQ characters transformed radically in the 90s. That happier history is here.

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